The Ultimate Family Nature Trail, British Columbia
British Columbia is a great place to track down all the kids’ favourite animals
By JW Patrick
Like most children, our three-year-old has the entire animal kingdom ranked in order of preference – with his premier league comprising mostly the scary ones with really big pointy teeth. Current title-holder is the Grizzly Bear, ever since he heard about one rudely interrupting his uncle’s fishing trip in British Columbia. The arrival of Wuncle David’s baby provided the perfect opportunity to combine a family visit with an animal-spotting family holiday in western Canada.
We racked up an impressive tally of animals on our first day in Canada by visiting the Vancouver Aquarium, located in Stanley Park. It’s excellent value, as under fives are free and there a good three hours worth of various aquariums plus a spectacular Pacific white sided dolphin display and the world-famous milky white smiling Beluga whales. If the weather’s fine it’s possible to hang out all day at the picturesque Stanley Park and a free bus takes you around the various walks, viewpoints, beaches, cafes and totem poles. (£11/adult @ Aquarium, Stanley Park is Free)
In Vancouver we stayed in a really poor hotel so we’d have to recommend one of the many hotels near the harbour front for the handy bus/tram routes and because young kids love the endless traffic of seaplanes and giant Alaskan cruise ships. The main tourist office is down here too, which is a must as they sell tickets cheaper than the venues themselves – including for Grouse Mountain and the dramatic Capilano Suspension Bridge. Also on the harbour front is an Imax – though taking our three year old to see a 25 feet tall jellyfish in glorious 3D wasn’t altogether a wise decision…
The following day we caught the ferry from Tsasswassen over to Vancouver Island. The 1hr 45 journey is classic British Columbia with magnificent scenery and the very real possibility of spotting whales or dolphins. On arrival in Victoria we booked a whale watching trip which may seem expensive if you don’t actually encounter a Killer Whale but it’s still a great speedboat ride and you’ll visit seal and sealion colonies (which smell awful!). Incidentally, young children are only allowed on the larger (toilet equipped!) boats and not the fast inflatables. (£50/adult, £30/kids)
That first sudden appearance of a Killer Whale’s sinister black fin was thrilling and even perfect strangers grinned at one another in shared amazement. The on-board marine biologist explained that these particular Killer Whales were Transients, the fun kind that eat seals and play with porpoises like people play with footballs. Killer Whales were now serious contenders for the animal kingdom’s premier league title so it was time to track down the defending champion, the Grizzly Bear.
It turns out there are no Grizzlies on Vancouver Island, just the smaller Black Bears – one of which had which had recently attacked a fisherman on his boat. We drove up the secluded west coast to Botanical Beach just beyond Port Renfrew to find a large bear warning sign guarding the gloomy woodland trail down to the beach. Much as we wanted to see a bear we’d prefer that a river, a valley, a windscreen or high powered rifle was between it and our children. And it was pouring down. And we were alone except for one other car. And it was nearly dusk. And bears like dusk.
Just then, the owners of the other vehicle returned grinning and said there were Grey Whales off shore. “But what about bears?” we asked. “Don’t worry, you have kids and a dog. Bears’ll always take ‘em first. Anyway its the Cougars you really gotta watch out for.” Grey Whales were definitely worth risking the kids for.
So to keep ourselves safe we sang loudly all the way down to the beach, while the children banged sticks together like in the Parent Trap all of which succeeded in scaring away the bears and cougars. Twenty minutes later we emerged onto the shoreline which was littered with a thousand shattered tree trunks. As if on cue, a plume of spray erupted from the waves immediately in front of us. Three Grey Whales. And their proximity was breathtaking. Anyone wanting to risk the slippery rocks and four-foot crashing waves could probably have touched one.
On the drive back to Victoria, a baby black bear scampered into the trees up ahead of us in the time it took to yell “Look Sammy! A baby Bear!” Maybe he’d have better luck the following week when our bear quest returned to the mainland where there were Grizzlies.
As soon as you pass through greater Vancouver with its endlessly repeating identishops, the Rockies start to fill your view and you get that sense of heading somewhere special. We were driving up 800km to Jasper then along what is widely considered one of the most spectacular drives in the world, the Icefields Parkway to Banff and hopefully en route track down some scary pointy-teeth animals. In order to cover that many miles in such a short space of time with small children we hired a campervan. The RV not only makes the long drive far more exciting for them – it’s handy always having a toilet, sink and bed to hand.
Must see stops on the drive up from Vancouver include Hell’s Gate, a cable car down into a narrowing gorge above the maelstrom of the raging Fraser River. Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Maligne Lake and Medicine Lake near Jasper are well worth photographing and keep an eye out for the rock formation that looks like a face, The Sleeping Indian. Fill up on tourist goodies at Jasper before heading down the parkway to the hypnotic Athabasca Falls. The magnificent Athabasca Glacier nearby is too unstable to walk on but there is a ‘bus’ tour with the same vehicles used in Antarctica. Lake Louise and Lake Morraine near Banff both provide the classic Rockies view of icy turquoise lake with mountain backdrop and are simply stunning. [National Park fee about £10/day]
As for scary pointy teeth animals, we spotted one pale coyote which slunk off on hearing “Mummy, look a polar bear!” echoing down his valley. And one night sitting around the campfire, the sounds of a classic howling wolfpack echoed around us. Which might have been scary had there not been at least three other camping families between us. Suckers. But no Grizzly bears or Cougars. However, keep an eye out for various places that offer guaranteed bear sightings from wilderness boat rides – though again very young children aren’t allowed on toilet-free boats
Non scary animals spotted, included Pikas – a hamster-type rodent the same size and shape as a morning roll. Pikas entered near the top of the cool animal premier league. We also saw countless deer, several herds of the massive Elk, mountain goats, Bighorn sheep, a woodpecker, a kingfisher and bald eagles. No moose, caribou, marmots or beavers unfortunately. We also went gold panning, which utterly captivated the young ones and burned up far more time than seemed warranted by the tiny fleck we took home of what may or may not have been gold.
Before catching our over night flight home from Vancouver we had time to visit Grouse Mountain just a 15 minutes drive from Vancouver. In addition to a cable car ride with great views (although we saw only mist and trees on our day) there’s tons to see and do up there including a lumberjack show up, zip lining and our prize objective: two orphaned Grizzly Bears. We were drenched by the time we reached the grizzly bear’s compound and could tell from the small crowd that had gathered that they must have been close to the wire. The Grizzlies seemed to enjoy the attention. “Sammy look! At last! Grizzly bears!”
“Mummy can I watch Fireman Sam on the plane?”